Shakespeare in Art – Fuseli’s Lear

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Henry Fuseli – like Joseph Wright of Derby – painted Shakespearean themes for John Boydell’s Shakspeare Gallery (yes, Shakspeare).  Born in Switzerland, working in England, Fuseli travelled to Italy where he was inspired by Classical art (“perfect” proportions and lots of draped garments), Renaissance art (Michelangelo and the revival of those Classical ideals), and Mannerist art (long necks, contorted forms, and more artificial looks).

Fuseli’s King Lear Admonishing Cordelia (1790) illustrates a moment from the first act and scene.  An aging Lear has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia.  Wanting to partition the land in proportion to his daughters’ love, Lear asks them to express the depth of their affection.  Both Goneril and Regan make grand proclamations, but Cordelia “cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth.”  Lear disinherits Cordelia and bestows his kingdom Goneril and Regan.



So young, and so untender?


So young, my lord, and true.


Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever.
The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.


Ouch.  Not a parenting tactic that I would recommend.

Ultimately, Goneril and Regan drive Lear both mad and out of his kingdom.  And it is none but the faithful Cordelia who aids her father and dies in the process.  In the end, Lear learns that Cordelia was, in fact, the one who loved him best.

Fuseli spent months in the Sistine Chapel learning from Michelangelo’s paintings, discovering how to create visual tension between human forms.  There are several people in this painting but the light and tripartite composition draw our eyes to King Lear, who sits in the middle of the canvas.  Lear’s belligerent gaze and extended finger draw our eyes to Cordelia, whose disheartened face, in turn, brings us back to Lear.

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